February 2008

The Solo Bass Nights of Randy Marshall

Last Sunday night, Oakland's eclectic Rooz Cafe saw four phenomenal Bay area bassists take the stage to the delight of all. From the classical stylings of the up-and-coming Dave Lockhart; Celtic-Afro funk of Ariane Cap; the ECM flavored virtuoso Edo Castro; to Randy Marshall and his brainchild: "The Solo Bass Night" series. A member of the California Bass Alliance, Marshall "networks with other bay area soloists to bring the bass guitar into the limelight". Amazingly, he does an admirable job of bringing together some of the Bay area's best bassists in a monthly movable feast of looping, bowing, thumpin' and pluckin' good fun.

The show began with Marshall's now familiar foray into the world of the soloing bass player. A truly great bassist in his own right, Marshall's enthusiasm is tempered only by his humility and love of all things bass. His "Bass Solo Night" series are a thing to behold and fertile ground for bassists of all stripes, shapes and colors. Marshall played selections from his latest CD "Gravity", (Digital Garage label), a delightful and worthy effort. His lyrical playing and textured tones also showed an affinity for the late, great guitarist Michael Hedges. Quite a feat to bring that kind of feeling to the bass.

Marshall's lilting "Thin Blue Line II" is a fabulous example of his gorgeous style of plucking; The driving "Phallacy" will have you tapping your feet to a truly infectious groove and I am at a loss to explain how he plays "Bolero" on a bass. Marshall has such a guitar-like quality when he plays it that for a moment or two, I forgot I was listening to a bass!

Marshall's passions aren't limited to just his array of 5-string basses and wondrous effects. Heath Care, the issues of global warming and living in sustainable world are also high on his list. Marshall writes in his recent blog, "As more evidence of climate change continues to mount, it becomes harder and harder to deny the changes taking place all around us. Awareness of our planets health is becoming a daily spot on the news, and even businesses are trying to figure out how to operate in a more earth friendly fashion. There is one industry however that seems to be still operating with it's blinders on when it comes to global consciousness... Health Care."  

"What's being completely ignored in the wake of all that, is just how much health care in general contributes to pollution and global warming. Do you all have any idea how much plastic is wasted every single day inside a hospital? You would gasp if I were able to go into real detail on it. Realize that because of the sterile and clean nature of everything we use to care for patients, we open "single use" plastic items and toss them when we're done by the thousands every day in just one hospital. If you think grocery stores giving out plastic bags is bad, and it is... you would keel over and die if you knew how much raw plastic is being spit out into your environment everyday by your local hospital.... and thats not to mention all the bio waste we put out..."

7 string bass (!) virtuoso Edo Castro is no stranger to Bay Area music fans. Castro was initially a self-taught bassist, but later attended the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. “ My teachers were not only schooling me, they’d recommend me for gigs," Castro marveled. During his stay in Chicago he played with some of the finest young bloods of the music scene at that time, Jim Trumpeter, Fareed Haque, Mark Walker and Hassan Khan. Of course there were the jazz icons, Miles Davis guitarist Pete Cosey and drummer Roy Haynes that Castro was fortunate enough to play with. Castro recalls," After playing a set with Roy Haynes, there was a bunch of us standing around talking to him and out of the blue Roy handed me his card and said, ‘Man when you’re ready, come to New York and give me a call. That was the greatest stamp of approval in front of all my peers.’ I’ve yet to get to New York and collect on that call.”

Castro's incredible ability to loop during his solos and use an Ebow to generate guitar-like sounds was nothing short of remarkable. His song "Remembering" was absolutely beautiful and truly reminded me of the works of another fantastic bassist: Eberhard Weber and his work on John Abercrombie and Jack DeJohnette's classic ECM album "Timeless".

Following Castro was Vallejo-by-way-of-Austria's Ariane Cap. A protege of legendary players like Kai Eckhardt and Victor Wooten, Cap has performed with the Celtic group "Tempest" and is one of the most sought after bassists in the Bay Area. Don't let her gender fool you; as Wooten himself remarked to me recently, "Oh man, this girl can play!"

Cap plays in a myriad of groups, including Richard Lindley's popular 'Palm Wine Boys" Born and raised in Austria, Cap has been musically active since a very early age. "Steeped in classical music," recalls Cap. "I played piano and other instruments until I found the bass. Electric and Upright became my main instruments. I studied Jazz Bass Education at the University of Music in Vienna, Austria, where I finally received a scholarship to attend the University of Miami for jazz studies for a year. (What an awesome school!!). I received a Graduate Certificate of Music in 2000 from USF in Tampa, Florida. I fell in love with the possibilities the States have to offer to a musician and managed to put my roots down in California." Bach, funk, african or celtic, Cap is at home with all of them and her solo pieces are a wonderfully crafted reflection of her worldly travels.

Closing this particular night was the youthful Dave Lockhart, whose blend of Bohemian jazz meets French classical on the double bass was mesmerizing. At first glance, one might mistake Lockhart for a hip-hop bassist, ready to throw down on a Digable Planets CD, or Modeski, Martin and Wood, however Lockhart's solos took the audience through a history of modern, post-classical styles, with a dash of South America and a hint of Bach. Afterwards, Steve, the proprietor of the Rooz Cafe confided in me, "Lot of great talent in here tonight, really great talent". I couldn't agree more.

Marshall and his revolving cast of bassists, featuring Edo Castro, Jeff Schmidt, Andres Cervantes and "Jimbo", will be at the Nomad Cafe in Berkeley on Shattuck, March 22nd for "Solo Bass Night II" and return to the Rooz Cafe in April. You don't have to be a bass player to appreciate these fine Bay area bassists, just a love of music and an open heart.

Randy Marshall
February 29th @The Red Vic Hotel, Haight Street

Randy Marshall's Solo Bass Night II
with Andy Cervantes, Edo Castro, Jeff Schmidt and "Jimbo"
March, 22nd @ The Nomad Cafe
6500 Shattuck, Berkeley, California

Bobby Fischer's Memorable Game, 1943-2008

The death of former World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer last week in Iceland, brought back a range of emotions and memories of how I began my love of chess. Fischer's meteoric rise captured my imagination and those of my fellow school chums when he played for the title in 1972. Listening to New York commentators like Shelby Lyman, Jimmy Sherwin and Edmar Mednis on the fledging PBS television network; Dispatches from the NY Times columnist Robert Byrne; Kissinger and Nixon pleading with Fischer to continue the match after going down 0-2 and culminating with his eventual victory over the Soviet champion Boris Spassky. The excitement we felt seeing NY mayor John Lindsay bestowing the keys to the city on Fischer was a joy to behold; even the Russians grudgingly applauded him... And then he was gone.

Fischer's mysterious disappearance was followed by the inevitable default of his title to the young Anatoly Karpov in 1975 and a myriad of bizarre sightings; An arrest for vagrancy once landed him in a Pasedena jail; He defeated MIT's Greenblatt computer chess program in 1978; Suddenly surfacing in a parking lot during the final rounds of a U.S. Chess Championship, to the shock of all; Charges of tax evasion and the subsequent State Department sanctions for playing a rematch with Spassky in war-torn Yugoslavia. These tales and many more have been well documented, yet it was his brand of chess, a captivating, attacking, neo-classical, take-no-prisoner approach that gripped and fascinated the entire world and one hopes, how he will best be remembered.

In the years that followed Fischer's victory, chess in the U.S. blossomed and my interest was no different. My good friend and future chess master Vincent Moore ran a local chess shop in Washington D.C.'s Georgetown. I served as a punching bag for most of the players there, until the drubbings finally sunk in and I began to understand why I was losing. Undaunted, I took it upon myself to study and memorize Fischer's seminal book, "My 60 Memorable Games". Clearly one of the best chess books ever written, reading it was almost like Bobby himself was talking to me. On taking on the fearsome Dragon variation of the Sicilian Defense, Bobby wrote, "Pry open the kingside, then sac, sac, sac!" For those of us who have played against it, he spoke volumes with that phase and gave Dragon players reason to cringe.

His records were truly unbelievable: At 14, the youngest Grandmaster ever at the time, youngest U.S. Champion at 15, ripping through the tournaments and Candidate/World Championship qualifying matches virtually undefeated and the list goes on. I was hooked. In 1979 while attending the Corcoran School of Art, I would often play on the chess tables at Dupont Circle and in front of the White House in Lafayette Square Park. So much so that my professor, fearing my grades would suffer, instructed me to do a paper on Marcel Duchamp, where I learned that he was not only an incredible artist, but a chess fanatic and captain of the French Olympic Chess team in 1933, drawing U.S. champion Frank Marshall. Duchamp would continue to play in South America, designing chess stamps and modern chess pieces with friends Max Ernst and Man Ray.

With Fischer all but vanished, the chess boom nevertheless continued in the U.S. and I discovered the brave new world of chess books. Sadly my progress was slow to say the least. Moving to New York City however, certainly helped. A few chess lessons and spending countless hours on the famed chess tables at NYU's Washington Square Park certainly was inspiring. These were the very same tables on which Bobby himself had cut his teeth and today, many of NYC's chess greats can still be seen there. Eventually I would use what I learned from studying Fischer in tournaments, playing for Brown University's 1983 championship chess team, winning a few thousand dollars in New York, Maryland, Boston and Rhode Island, (even beating a few masters along the way!) Alas, there is always someone a little stronger to knock you down just when you think you've got it figured out!

Now Bobby Fischer is gone again, just as suddenly as he arrived and the controversy he generated will surely surround him for years to come. There are plenty of great books on Fischer, including local International Master and Mechanic Institute resident John Donaldson and Eric Tangborn's "The Unknown Bobby Fischer" and wonderful films like "Searching for Bobby Fischer", by San Francisco's Steve Zallian.

Recently however, Fischer's sad and tragic outbursts will also plague him. From his anti-semetic diatribes and praise for the 9/11 attackers, to the sad interview with ESPN's Jeremy Schapp; his arrest and detainment in Japan and finally his exile and death in Iceland, the scene of his greatest triumph. Most chess players will, I hope, remember him for his insightful, clear and uncompromising chess. For some reason, one game of Fischer's has always left me in complete and utter awe. It's not his workman like destruction of Denmark's Bent Larson or his celebrated game against Donald Byrne, where he sacrificed his Queen at age 12 and spun a spectacular mating net, but rather his game against Byrne's brother, the late NY Times chess columnist Robert Byrne during the 1963 U.S. Championship. I've never forgotten it and I present it below. It's how I'll best remember Bobby Fischer.

1963 U.S. Championship
White: Robert Byrne
Black: Bobby Fischer
Grunfeld Defense

1. d4 Nf6
2. c4 g6
3. g3 c6
4. Bg2 d5
5. cxd5 cxd5
6. Nc3 Bg7
7. e3 O-O
8. Nge2 Nc6
9. O-O b6
10. b3 Ba6
11. Ba3 Re8
12. Qd2 e5
13. dxe5 Nxe5
14. Rfd1 Nd3
15. Qc2 Nxf2
16. Kxf2 Ng4+
17. Kg1 Nxe3
18. Qd2 Nxg2
19. Kxg2 d4
20. Nxd4 Bb7+
21. Kf1 Qd7

(0-1) White resigned

E. "Doc" Smith is a former Rhode Island Amateur Champion, and has won divisional titles in the U.S. Amateur Team Championships for Brown University as well as the Rhode Island Chess League Championships. He has also taught chess to kids in S.F. schools, where he has directed several successful citywide tournaments.